Posture


You just sat down. That movement is part of the liturgy. So, in fact, is what I am doing: Standing to address you. In our culture, sitting isn't just the restful posture, it is also the receptive posture. And standing isn't just the posture of the person who has nowhere to sit, it is the active and engaged posture.

People can't get away from posture. When a few of us or a lot of us come together for a common ritual, our postures play an even larger part. Posture is a sort of language.

This language is not the "body language" people spoke much of some years back (if I cross my arms when I'm talking to you it means I'm not really involved in the conversation any more). This is body language, but it is a language we memorize, know by heart, and generally do together.
If we want to understand something about posture's language at the liturgy and why it matters, it helps to look at how we learn to use various postures in various groups for various occasions. For instance, what has our culture made of the act of standing up? You're at the ballpark and they begin the "Star-spangled Banner." You're in a courtroom and the judge rises to leave the bench. You are sitting at a mortuary visiting with friends and the widow of the deceased comes into the room and over to your group. You're back at the ballpark, the home team is losing by a run in the bottom of the ninth, there is a runner on second and two out. What posture do you assume?

We get to our feet: for the judge, for the national anthem, for the widow, for the-we hope-base hit to tie the game or home run to win it outright. It isn't just habit and it isn't just emotion, but habit and emotion have something to do with it. It is the meaning standing gives to the moment and the meaning the moment gives to standing. Another culture might say that bowing over or kneeling was the right response for one or all of these moments. There is something arbitrary after all about this, an agreement that we enter into: To us, standing seems to mean just this and that-but we can see how other tribes on the earth could come to see these same things expressed in a completely different posture.

For us, standing can't be pinned down to just one little meaning: respect, say, or attention. It takes in a variety of related attitudes. At Sunday Mass, we stand to enter into the liturgy. We stand at the first approach of the Gospel proclamation. We stand-ordinarily-to make our prayers of intercession. We are on our feet again when we are urged by the presider to lift up our hearts and give thanks to the Lord our God. And we stand to go out from the room and our liturgy. For us, these are the moments that call for a posture that is engaged, ready to act, a posture that manifests respect and shows great attention to the matter at hand. People growing up and growing old in this culture probably would feel a little uncomfortable sitting during the procession that begins our liturgy or kneeling during the proclamation of the Gospel.

Think of how we use the notion of standing in our English expressions. We say that a person stands on their own two feet. We stand up to be counted. We stand for something. We stand by each other. In an old Latin expression, ancient Christians called themselves the circumstantes. This meant that they were the people who "stand around" or, better, the people who "stand in a circle." That is how they saw themselves, a community of people standing around the altar, encircling the altar. Today, that is this community. We are the people who "stand around" the altar, who stand to surround the altar. For nearly all of the church's history, there have been no chairs, no pews, no benches. This is how it continues throughout many of the world's Christian churches. Perhaps the standing posture, so much more active than sitting, serves well to teach us what being in this room means.

Standing is about respect, about attention, about readiness. For us, it is the basic posture, the normal posture. Anything else is a temporary departure, a little sitting, a little kneeling, then we get back to our basic "stance."

If we sit down during the liturgy, it is usually to allow us to listen more attentively or to reflect in silence without the distraction of bearing all our weight on our two feet. Sitting is good for those tasks, but it has major drawbacks in that we can let it become the posture of an audience, and that is what we are not.

Likewise, the kneeling posture for us has associations with repentance and with penance, with an attitude that expresses adoration, and sometimes simply with the posture an individual wants to take in moments of private prayer. For most of the history of the church, the people didn't sit down-pews were only widely used after the Reformation. And kneeling was done by Catholics in the liturgy itself only at rare moments. Now we can say that sitting and kneeling are part of how Catholic communities in this society do the liturgy, each has a certain limited place. But still, it should feel to us as Catholics that when we come together to do the liturgy, we do it on our feet.

Do we think of standing as our basic posture here? That's hard when so much of the furniture in this room is about sitting. It puts us in the mind to watch-passively. It can make us feel like prisoners, walled in before and behind by heavy furniture, lined up in rows. But we really are those circumstantes, those who stand around the table. This is Christ's banquet table in our midst, this altar, but our banquet is a banquet of pilgrims. The food here is the bread and wine eaten by those on a journey. It is a glimpse of a banquet, a glimpse of what we are moving toward-but we are people on the move, on our feet, not yet at ease.
A priest told me once about weddings: "I've had it with these people at weddings, Catholics who act as though they haven't been to Mass for years. They have no idea when to sit or kneel or stand. I used to tell them: Please be seated. Please stand. Please kneel. Then one day when I was fuming about it all, I thought: Wait a minute. Don't they have some responsibility? Why do I have to know my part and they don't have to know theirs? So, now I never tell them anything. If they sit the whole time, fine. If they kneel for the entire wedding, fine."

That sounds harsh, but there's a strong point. Posture here is not arbitrary. It isn't just anything the leader wants to make it. It isn't whatever you feel like at the moment. It is the posture we take, not as individuals but as the church. So here are not two hundred fifty individuals standing up, here is the vigilant, watchful, active body of believers. Our standing tells us what sort of church we are. Thus it shows respect and it teaches us respect: respect for one another as God's creatures and as members of the body of Christ, and respect that springs from the presence of Christ in the word proclaimed from scripture and in bread and wine. Likewise, our standing here is a rehearsal for how we mean to be when we leave here: engaged with the world and one another, alert for God's kingdom, standing firm, standing in solidarity with brothers and sisters.

To sit down with this assembly is also a rehearsal. It isn't like sitting in a theater or before the TV or on the porch after a day's work. It isn't sitting to relax or be entertained. This is sitting to hear the lector read the scriptures to the church. It is sitting to let silence wash over us as we pray and reflect. Little by little, this posture teaches us how to listen and what to listen for. Little by little, the sitting we do here makes us a contemplative people, a people who can keep prayer rolling around inside us even in the busiest times of our daily living.

And to kneel with this assembly during penitential or very intense times is also a rehearsing. We need to be people who know what it means to be on our knees in sadness and sorrow, in adoration, in daily night prayers for forgiveness and for peace. Our worship here, Sunday by Sunday, is not only in the words of prayers and songs, it is in the whole human person that we are here. How each one of us joins in the liturgy-kneeling, sitting, and standing-that is what makes and shapes and hammers out this Liturgy of Word and Eucharist, the work and the delight given us at baptism.

Copyright © 1992, Gabe Huck. Used by permission